From Passive Viewing to Active Learning: Simple Techniques for Applying Active Learning Strategies to Online Course Videos

From Web-enhanced face-to-face courses to MOOCs, flipped, blended, and fully online courses, videos are an integral component of today’s educational landscape—from kindergarten all the way through higher education.

But there’s a big difference between watching a video and learning something from it. Videos are great for presenting visual information and emotional appeals, but not particularly effective at diving below the surface of non-visual theoretical or abstract topics or for driving critical thinking. What’s more, any video presented in class must compete for attention and memory with the five-plus hours the typical student spends outside of class watching television programs, movies, and other onscreen entertainment. (Nielsen, 2013)

To help increase the educational effectiveness of an online course video, consider applying one or more of the following active learning strategies.

1. Video as guided lesson. The goal here is to help ensure that students watch videos actively—in other words, giving it their full attention. You also want to help draw students’ attention to (and reinforce) the most important concepts being presented. Here’s how:

a. Pose a question at the beginning of each video to give students an idea before they watch of what to expect, what to look for, and what might be worth thinking about. Example:

Q. Why might prehistoric man have diverted precious time from survival-based activities to make art? Think about that as you watch the following video: The Caves of Lascaux (5:10)

b. Present videos in an outline-like structure using concise, descriptively labeled links that include running times as shown below. Doing so:

i. Puts information into context for students automatically. In the example below, students don’t have to be explicitly told that Orientalizing is one of three important styles of ancient Greek vase painting; the structured presentation of video clips implicitly conveys and reinforces this—and similar—contextual relationships.

Art in the Ancient World (2:18)
  Middle and Near East (1:54)
  The Aegean (2:01)
  Greece (3:15)
    Vase painting (1:48)
      Geometric (2:15)
      Orientalizing (1:46)
      Archaic (1:57)
    Sculpture (2:11)
Art in the Middle Ages (3:00)

ii. Sets expectations. Like a well-worded chapter heading, a descriptive video link such as “Middle and Near East” delivers students to the content already actively thinking about what they know (or don’t know) about the topic.

iii. Encourages video viewing (and reviewing). Nontraditional students must fit their studies around work and family, taking advantage of unexpected bits of downtime throughout the day; including video running times helps them do so.

c. Embed short graded or self-assessments either in the video itself, or at the end of each video. Including one or two multiple-choice questions or requests to post to a forum—either between scenes (using a post-production editing tool such as Camtasia or Captivate) or after the video—alerts students to the “take homes” they should be getting from the material. It also helps teachers assess, at point of contact, whether students understand the major concepts.

2. Video as springboard for in-depth discussion. This strategy encourages students to make a personal connection between video content and their own existing knowledge. It also encourages student-student collaboration, which is a critical component of any successful online course. To use video as a springboard for discussion:

a. Assign a video.

b. After viewing the video, have each student post the following to a discussion board:

i. A concept that was new to him/her.

ii. A concept that s/he found confusing (and why).

iii. A concept that, in the student’s opinion, relates either to the course text or to a previous class discussion (and how).

iv. A response to at least two classmates that attempts to define or explain the concept classmates found confusing (based on independent research if necessary).

3. Video as springboard for critical thinking. Ideally, students come away from a class not just having memorized material, but also having understood it well enough to discuss and apply it to novel scenarios. To apply this strategy:

a. Assign two or three videos.

b. Have students identify, compare, and contrast the concepts presented in each. How are the concepts similar? How are they different? Which are substantiated or refuted by the course text (or other course materials)?

c. Optionally, have students post their work to a discussion board and comment on their classmates’ comparisons.

4. Video as a way to strengthen online research skills while driving conceptual understanding. To apply this two-fold strategy:

a. Assign a video.

b. Have students locate online and present to the class a second video that (supports, defends, opposes, elaborates…) the original video. If students need scaffolding to complete this exercise, provide guidelines for searching the Web and vetting sources.

c. Use students’ “found” videos as the basis for class discussion. Ask students to comment, via discussion board, on how well the clips shared by their classmates met the selected criterion.

The Nielsen Company, Free to Move Between Screens: The Cross-Platform Report, March 2013.–free-to-move-betwe.html.

Emily A. Moore, M.Ed., is an instructional designer in the online learning office at Texas State Technical College – Harlingen Campus.